Tens of thousands on the rim of the Indian Ocean and hundreds of foreigners from countries around the world were victims of the Asian tsunami. But the waves that scoured South and Southeast Asia also did terrible damage to millions in other areas that had been the focus of aid and relief drives before the tsunami.
From AIDS in Africa to displacement and hunger in Darfur, Sudan, from the devastation caused by Hurricane Jeanne in Haiti to continuing efforts to house those left homeless by last year’s earthquake in Bam, Iran, relief agencies despair about donor fatigue, the short attention span of the media and political pressure on non-government organizations to put the money where the tragedy is freshest and the profile highest.
At the big international agencies and non-governmental organizations that regularly deal with disasters, famines, refugee crises and other traumatic events, there is enormous happiness with the generosity pouring forth from every corner of the planet for victims of the tsunami. At the same time, there is concern that, in the words of a World Bank specialist who runs programs in Southeast Asia, "we don't rob poor Peter to pay Paul."
"People aren’t packing bags and moving from Darfur to Indonesia, but at the top levels of management it's certainly changing the focus, and rightly so," says the specialist, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Our programs in Indonesia, even, are shifting focus to Aceh, but there's also a lot of discussion about how to make sure we do business as usual, too. There are a lot of poor people who can't afford us to just shift everything toward the tsunami."
Money, logistics and politics
In the short term, aid and relief experts say there may be no way to prevent a loss of traction on issues that were at the top of the international aid agenda before the tsunami hit. When the scale of the Asian disaster became known, says Charles Lyons, head of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, senior staff and veteran relief coordinators had to move quickly from wherever they might have been to offer effective help.
"In our case, we're not pulling people out of Sudan or Congo, say, to staff Jakarta," says Lyons. "But certainly it is a valid concern if other NGOs are doing that."
But the larger worry for these groups is the effect the outpouring of relief may have in the middle and longer term, particularly on the political momentum needed to make progress in the many crisis areas now overshadowed by the tsunami.
"This has the potential to change the momentum, to change the time frame of how we can help in other places," says Lyons. "Political leaders will go to Jakarta instead of Khartoum, and if everyone's moving to this side of the boat, then the boat leans a bit."
This is important for Africa's many crises, and in Sudan's Darfur region in particular. Late last year, the World Health Organization estimated that about 1 million people were displaced and some 10,000 people a month were dying as a result of disease and malnutrition caused by the separatist conflict between largely Christian Darfur and the Muslim Sudanese government. Sudan has been threatened with sanctions and has been the target of heated rhetoric by international governments, including the United States. But in spite of 50,000 dead so far, the international response has been nothing like the world's reaction to the devastation of the tsunami.
"With Darfur, it's not so much a concern about whether aid will be diverted, but whether it ever really made it to the average person's radar in the first place," says Lyons. "What would it take? Three million dead? Four million? We just don't know."
The ‘tipping point’
Those who study psychology of charitable giving and public awareness speak of a "tipping point" that suddenly draws the world's attention but which is vastly different, and often irrationally unpredictable, in every crisis. The tsunami is viewed as an extraordinary event not just because of its large death toll — after all, three separate earthquakes claimed more than 200,000 lives each in the last century in China — but because of the gigantic area over which destruction was spread.
Many suspect that racism plays a role, too. World leaders, including Nelson Mandela, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and others, routinely complain about the geopolitical calculus that seems to go on as great powers consider how to intervene (or not) in catastrophic events. During the 1990s, Annan argues, the West lavished aid and ultimately intervened militarily to save Bosnia's white Muslim population from a genocide while it did nothing to prevent 750,000 mostly Tutsi Rwandans from being slaughtered by their Hutu compatriots. Because Europe feared a refugee crisis that would affect its economies (and ripple beyond), Bosnia, and later Kosovo, got on the radar. Rwanda's genocide did not.
Some suspected that the United States was partly responding to such criticism when Secretary of State Colin Powell said the U.S. effort gives "the Muslim world and the rest of the world an opportunity to see American generosity, American values in action, where we care about the dignity of every individual and the worth of every individual, and our need to respond to the needs of every individual of whatever faith."
Aid and relief professionals recognize this argument's validity and are quick to cite exceptions, too, like the relief efforts of the 1980s in Ethiopia and Sudan, and the humanitarian intervention in Somalia led by the United States in 1993. But they argue that race is only one factor.
"You have to also judge these things on how surprising they are," says the World Bank specialist. "There are many people who look at Africa and all its problems and just are not shocked to see another disaster there. Tyrants, disease, corrupt bureaucracies are assumed to be par for the course, and so a coup in this place or a drought in another just doesn't raise the public's interest the way a gigantic tsunami does."
Still, all of these groups are hoping they can find a way to tap into the generosity shown toward South and Southeast Asia and bring other desperate plights into the world's consciousness. "We can't do it with money sent for the tsunami — that's dedicated to rebuilding, and that's set in stone," says UNICEF's Lyons. "But just maybe, as they visit NGO Web sites to send donations, they'll notice the crisis in Congo, or Haiti or Sudan. Hope is a big part of what we do, after all."
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